Steven Bartlett’s top 5 tips for team building 

The Dragons’ Den investor gives his top five tips for building a winning team, knowing when to take a backseat, and why his main job is creating a company culture.

Steven Bartlett has shared his top-five tips four building a winning team.  

Speaking at YuLife’s offices in central London, the Dragons’ Den star spoke to a small audience in the insurance start-up’s colourful offices, accompanied by a stand-in for his recently advertised around-the-clock videographer, filming for an upcoming fly-on-the-wall TV show about the investor’s life. 

See also: Green business tips from Deborah Meaden

Steven Bartlett on how to build a winning team

Here are the key takeaways from the social media entrepreneur and angel investor’s talk.  

#1 – Implement the right culture early on

By definition, “company” is a group of people, and Bartlett believes the job of a CEO or founder is to assemble the best group of people and bind them with a culture which he says “makes one plus one equal three”.  

“I appoint a CEO, create the culture and the vision, then try and get the values and culture right so we can achieve the objectives,” he says.  

The first 10 people in the organisation are key, he believes, as they will have an effect on the company’s culture thereafter.

‘My number-one job is not sales; it’s getting this group of people to behave in the right way’ 

Steven Bartlett talking at YuLife

“I think it’s the most important thing, especially at the beginning because the first 10 people – each one of them represents 10 per cent of your company culture … one bad apple can spoil the bunch.” 

Because people tend to hire people like themselves, the next 90 people hired in the company will resemble that first 10, he explains.  

“It’s really hard to unpick or undo that [culture] when you’re at 100 or 200 people. 

“You should be able to say, ‘That is an x company person’. It should be so unbelievably clear: the vernacular, the way they speak, the way they conduct themselves, how nice they are to each other. There should be an element of them feeling like disciples of the company. If the culture is strong at that point, the new people become the culture. If it’s weak, the culture becomes more like the new people.  

“I can pinpoint certain members of our team where I think, if the culture wasn’t so strong, they’d probably behave like someone else. But because the culture is so strong here, there is no chance they could possibly behave in any other way than as we behave as a unit. That kindness, selflessness and going above and beyond when we need to.

“My number-one job is not sales; it’s getting this group of people to behave in the right way.” 

#2 – Know when to get out the way

You need different people at different stages of a business’s life, Bartlett argues.  

At the first stage (what he calls the cult stage), you’re looking for people who are all in. The growth and enterprise phases after this are difficult, however, and require more experienced heads.  

“The people at the first stage are not necessarily the people you want in the enterprise stage,” he says.

“I respect CEOs like Ben Francis at Gymshark who was in that cult phase… and when the company grew, he was like ‘I’m getting out the way – I’m going to appoint a CEO who has done this before’. He worked in the business for six years in every department and after six years he said, ‘I’m ready now to be the CEO’.

“I always say this to founders: ‘Your business is going like this now, what do you care about more? Is it the ego and the title or is it being successful?’ Are you willing to get out the way of the success you’ve made?’”

#3 – Avoid conflict through open communication

“Communication seems to be the way to avoid conflict. Having systems in place to have frequent and reliable outlets to communicate is super important,” Bartlett says. “We need to have systems in place for continual course correction.”

Bartlett recounted the time one of his businesses had a suggestion box for feedback. “It was just people roasting the CEO,” he says. In order to be more constructive, he researched the Kaizen philosophy – the process of continual improvement – used by companies such as Toyota.

“They don’t just rely on feedback coming from the very top of the organisation,” he says. “They’ve created a system where the person on the production line has an outlet and a system that allows them to point out feedback that needs to be implemented.

“There are small things people see but they’re not empowered to or don’t have an outlet to [voice them]. In the Kaizen philosophy, you have to see the suggestion through by yourself. You have to [carry out the suggestion yourself], with support of your Kaizen coach, so suggestions become constructive.”

#4 – Don’t be scared to fire (at the right time)

“You’re fired” is a phrase the Dragons’ Den investor may be saying a lot more of, if rumours that he will replace Lord Alan Sugar at the head of the boardroom on The Apprentice are to be believed.

But Bartlett recounted a time early in his career when he knew “deep in my gut” that a recruit wasn’t the right fit for the company but held on to them anyway. “I made a mistake,” he says. “I knew, but instead of firing I made him the MD in another country.”

“I was a coward, and I paid the price for that. I paid for it in every way: it had a huge impact on our financial performance [and] on team members’ satisfaction and happiness. What I should have done was had the uncomfortable conversation sooner. If you don’t address it, it just grows and the collateral damage increases. Now, once I’m sure on something, the speed in which I address it is the most important thing.

“It’s ok to be wrong in hiring, everyone is,” he says. “I’m going to get it wrong; I’ve accepted that. Once I get it wrong, the speed in which I rectify it and have the difficult situation is the most important thing.

“If they’re not right for the company, the company is not right for them. There’s going to be critical feedback about unmet expectations on both sides, so it’s right at that point to have an honest conversation about what the company needs.

“For me, the first reason why you would let someone go is a cultural violation – skills and knowledge can be taught,” he says. “I think it should be a responsibility to upskill people and teach them. One person leaving a company doesn’t necessarily kill a company, but I’ve seen many a time one person staying nearly did.

“If someone doesn’t share your company’s culture, it is contagious. My biggest mistake in business was knowing someone wasn’t right for the organisation and procrastinating on it.”

#5 – Build a supportive community

A business associate once asked Bartlett how many company cultures did his business have? One, the entrepreneur suggested.

But how many managers did this business have? this associate continued.

“Thirty,” answered Bartlett.

Then you have 30 company cultures, was the reply.

The idea behind this conversation was that each company produces subcultures within its own teams, and Bartlett says these have more impact that the overarching company culture. One team can be happy, another on verge of collapse, both within the same office walls.

“I think some organisations see work as getting the to-do list done and it’s very transactional,” he says. “But I think organisations who will retain people the best, get the best out of individuals, and have the happiest individuals provide more than financial renumeration, it’s a supportive community.”

“It reduces stress levels and makes you more resilient as an individual. We KPI-d the number of internal communities we had. We also had in-house therapists with opt-out therapy sessions.

“When you have a community, that’s when people do the best work of their lives.”

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Dom Walbanke

Dom Walbanke

Dom Walbanke is a feature writer for Growth Business and Small Business, focused on matters concerning start-ups and scale-ups. He has also been published in the Independent, FourFourTwo magazine and various...